Creating Collaborating Communities Around Ideas and Issues

By creating a coalition around issues relating to intellectual life and intellectual curiosity, an academic leader can help develop a broad commitment to a vision that links to greater institutional goals.

Both the process of developing a commitment to a vision and of realizing it is important. From reading student newspapers, reports from academic committees, and even the Chronicle of Higher Education, it is clear that what makes news on campuses is not much different from that for the national scene: the thorny issues of change and conflict. Keywords in headlines– unexpectedly, divide, stereotype, frustrate– suggest the reality for many of our communities; they represent, however, not only crises but opportunities for new directions.

The challenge to academic leaders, particularly those in formal positions of responsibility, is to overcome resistance to change– comfort with the status quo, skepticism about the efficacy of less-traditional, non-familiar approaches, fear of failure, perceived lack of support. The challenge is to build a coalition by getting people to work together to develop, communicate and execute an academic vision.

Here is a story about how leaders on one campus took a first step toward accomplishing this.

Following normal practice, in early spring the dean solicited all thirty-six departments for requests for new faculty appointments. Nearly 100 requests came back, each carefully justified on departmental needs. Based on institutional priorities and budgets, about one-fourth of the requests were approved. With few searches authorized, there was some resentment, with the potential of great harm to institutional morale.

However, the dean turned the experience into a constructive one, launching the fall with a retreat for chairs, around the intellectual topic of ‘time,' inviting each of the divisions to explore this issue from their particular perspective. The physics chair dealt with the theory of relativity; the psychology chair discussed how internal sensations of time can be compared to the clock; the chair of art explored time as a concept portrayed by visual artists. These sessions led, after lunch, to dialogue about how to focus more intently on the intellectual development of faculty, in all divisions.

The success of the retreat drew from several key features of effective leadership:

  • helping to develop a shared purpose. The dean did not forget that it was interest in intellectual ideas that had made these chairs faculty in the first place. They began to see that they had more in common than not.
  • encouraging people to recognize the value of differences. As faculty saw different perspectives on the same topic, they could respect each.
  • providing an opportunity for learning from peers. As faculty worked together in discussion sessions, they began to see each other as colleagues, not competitors.
  • figuring out the right dynamic for collegial interactions.

Finally, it is critical to note that the dean set an example, modeling the behavior he wanted to encourage. He had a visible commitment to a great institutional vision and was ready to invest personal time and energy in helping to change values and beliefs.